Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Scorsese lights Stones, Renee bangs heads, saluting "Angels," huggable "Moon"

Film Critic Emeritus

Some (moderately) short takes on current movies:

RISE AND "SHINE": Martin Scorsese's films, with their editing, camera movements and emotional crescendos, often seem like cinematic equivalents of rock music. Besides, Marty (as all us Scorsese buffs call him) was one of the editors of 1970's seminal "Woodstock" and directed 1978's masterful Band documentary "The Last Waltz."

And now, to no one's surprise, Marty and the Rolling Stones prove to be a rich, rapturous movie marriage. "Shine a Light," best seen in IMAX at Cinemark 17, depicts the Stones' two-day concert at Manhattan's Beacon Theatre. Part of the group's 2006 "Bigger Bang Tour," the concert was in honor of Bill Clinton's birthday. As a cultural landmark, that may not be as epochal as Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday" to JFK, but it still ranks as An Event.

And the movie itself is an event. Aided by 18 cameramen, Marty exquisitely captures the adrenalin rush of a Stones concert. Unlike the recent U2 IMAX movie, "Shine a Light" is not in 3-D. It doesn't need to be. The film's you-are-there urgency allows the intimacy of a one-on-one serenade without losing the excitement of a large concert hall.

"Shine a Light" demonstrates expert use of one of moviemaking's most impactful weapons, the close-up. We get piercing looks at the weatherbeaten faces of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards (looking worse than anyone else, but playing great guitar), Ron Wood and Charlie Watts. These craggy close-ups remind us of how the Stones have aged. And, more significantly, how we have aged too.

Jagger and youthful Christina Aguilera perform "Live With Me." Other memorable segments feature "Sympathy for the Devil," "Satisfaction," "Honky Tonk Women," "Faraway Eyes" and "Start Me Up."

"Shine a Light" emerges as a dynamic yet thought-provoking film. It may not generate the legendary legacy of Marty's "The Last Waltz." But it's a great concert movie.

LYNCHING ZELLWEGER: George Clooney is the apparent fall guy for "Leatherheads," his lame attempt to resurrect 1930s-style screwball comedy against a backdrop of 1920s football.

Actually, Clooney is the lesser culprit. He's clearly enamored of 1930s comedies (many of which, incidentally, his father Nick used to introduce in the halcyon days of the American Movie Classics cable network). But as a director, he trades too heavily on nostalgia, hoping that 80-year-old artifacts automatically bring forth a chorus of "ah-h-h-h-h's".

He's also generous as actor/director. Don't get me wrong. Gorgeous George gets plenty of close-ups, and even when covered with mud, his suave composure never wavers. But he realizes the importance of supporting players, and everyone gets the chance to strut.

In the sad case of Renee Zellweger, she gets too many chances to strut, and she abuses all of them. She plays that staple of Hollywood Golden Age comedies, the scrappy, ambitious newspaperwoman. When Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell and Jean Arthur played wise-cracking dames, they often had the good judgment to toss off their lines in an understated manner, allowing the audience to digest them for a few seconds and then laugh even more loudly.

Zellweger doesn't toss off anything. She mugs, grimaces and poses as if auditioning for a reprise of Helen Hayes' stowaway role in "Airport." She bludgeons every line of dialog to the point of agony. At first I wanted to throw something at the screen. By the end of the movie, I wanted to yank her image off the screen and do some bludgeoning myself. Hers is arguably the most annoying performance in any of the current century's A-list movies.

Once upon a time, say a dozen years ago, Zellweger knew the meaning of subtlety. In 1996's virtually forgotten "The Whole Wide World," she played a prim schoolteacher who inspires Robert Howard, tormented author of "Conan the Barbarian." That was, of course, an entirely different role, and as Howard, brooding Vincent D'Onofrio was an entirely different acting partner than cheeky Clooney. But her performance was filled with delightful small touches.

A few of those small touches could have elevated "Leatherheads." Instead, she helps sink the entire enterprise. I found myself whispering, "Go away, Renee, go away." Again and again and again.

SERIOUS "ANGELS": I look back on "Snow Angels" with considerable fondness and even admiration. Yet I walked out of the theater almost totally depressed. The film ends with a glimmer of hope, but what precedes the finale is an unflinching look at human unhappiness.

Small-town high-schooler Michael Angarano has more than his share of teen angst. His parents are splitting up, and he works at a Chinese restaurant, where he harbors a longtime crush on co-worker Kate Beckinsale, who once was his babysitter. She's now in the midst of a bitter estrangement from irresponsible husband Sam Rockwell, her high-school sweetheart. Sam's now a recovering alcoholic and a born-again Christian, and his desperate attempts to win Kate back are heartbreaking.

The movie is beautifully acted, with Rockwell and Angarano hitting all the right, pungent notes. Beckinsale gives a courageous performance, unafraid to reveal her character's less likable qualities. Amy Sedaris, as Kate's weary, sarcastic co-worker, and Olivia Thirlby, as an outspoken geek with designs on Angarano, are delightful.

Onetime Richardson resident David Gordon Green, who adapted the screenplay from Stewart O'Nan's lauded novel, obviously cares deeply for his characters and his actors. He also allows moments of genuine wit to lighten the film's heavy emotional load.

All of us have problems. So do we really need a movie that burdens us with other people's emotional crises? Judging from my own reactions, I say we do. As I said, I left the Angelika feeling depressed. Yet the more I thought about the movie, the more I liked it. Not every movie has to be huggable, and you won't want to hug "Snow Angels." But after you think about it, you'll feel like saluting it. And I'm not referring to the middle-finger salute, which so many other contemporary movies provoke.

FULL "MOON": "Under the Same Moon" is filled with traps, and it escapes almost all of them.

It's the story of 9-year-old Carlitos' clandestine journey from Mexico to Los Angeles, where his illegal-alien mother works. They haven't seen each other in four years, and he wonders if she still loves him.

Of course, she does. She toils rigorously to save enough money to pay for him to join her, all the while trying to hide her illegal status from omnipresent prying eyes. Carlitos, for his part, proves enormously enterprising as he escapes a child prostitution ring and sidesteps other, more humorous, situations.

Along the way, he meets Enrique, an avuncular illegal alien who at first detests having to look after a child but soon becomes Carlitos' biggest champion.

See what I mean about traps? Most of the situations border on cliches, and the characters could easily dwindle into stereotypes. Moreover, the plot's contrivances often stretch credibility.

But director Patricia Riggens, in her feature debut, softens the screenplay's potential blows by understating each emotion-filled vignette. And a trio of triumphant lead performances offer immeasurable aid.

Adrian Alonso, who was 12 when the movie was shot, pushes all the right buttons without making the button-pushing obvious. He's cute without being too cute, and his responses are natural and endearing. Kate del Castillo registers the mother's weariness and hopefulness in equal measure.

As Enrique, Eugenio Derbies has the biggest challenge. His role could have disintegrated so rapidly into the lovable-grouch stereotype. But his comic and dramatic facilities vanquish the cliche.

"Under the Same Moon" is a huggable movie, one you can embrace without feeling guilty.

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